A tentative socio-critical exploration of rhizomatic education (#change11)

In an essay on rhizomatic education, Dave Cormier proposes the following:

“In the rhizomatic model of learning, curriculum is not driven by predefined inputs from experts; it is constructed and negotiated in real time by the contributions of those engaged in the learning process”.

He continues by stating: “Suggesting that a distributed negotiation of knowledge can allow a community of people to legitimize the work they are doing among themselves and for each member of the group, the rhizomatic model dispenses with the need for external validation of knowledge, either by an expert or by a constructed curriculum”.

Not only does the community become the curriculum, but also displaces the need for external validation, according to Cormier.

There are many aspects in the notion of rhizomatic learning that resonates with me.

There are however two aspects that worry me.

The first aspect that worries me is the notion of the ‘community’ as something that is not affected by power-relations embedded in gender, race, geo-political, socio-economic and cultural histories and realities.

We forget that communities are convened/established based on certain shared epistemologies and ontologies. Communities do not only include, but per se also exclude.  The criteria on which membership of communities are based are embedded in power-relations and as the massacres in Rwanda, Herzegovina and other places show – these criteria can change overnight. You may be part of a community when you go to sleep, and wake up to find that you are excluded based on religion, gender, HIV/AIDS status, culture, language, employment status or a range of other, often arbitrarily chosen criteria.

Biesta (2004) in a wonderful article “The community of those who have nothing in common: Education and the language of responsibility” (Interchange 53/3:307-324) quotes Bauman (1995) who warns that all communities create ‘strangers’ – those who do not fit the epistemological or ontological maps of those on the ‘inside’. Communities either force strangers to become assimilated into the meta-narratives on which these communities are based; or excommunicate these who do not ‘fit’. Bauman (in Biesta 2004) calls the assimilation of the ‘other’ “anthropophagic” which literally means “man(sic)-eating” – transforming those who are assimilated into undistinguishable (and accepted) members of the community.

When strangers or those who do not ‘fit’ into or accept the founding meta-narratives of a community are excommunicated, they are banished and vomited out – which Bauman calls an “anthropoemic” approach.

Peaceful coexistence between communities is often (mostly?) based on a careful balance of interests and power/benefit relations.

So while Cormier and others (seem to) celebrate the end of the “sage on the stage” or experts; I suspect that the community and/or network has now taken over the role of the ‘one’ person who decides what to include and exclude. Though knowledge and knowledge construction does look different in a networked age and  resemble rhizomes, these networks and rhizomes may not be so neutral as we would like to assume (see Castells 2009 “Communication Power”).

The second aspect that I haven’t resolved yet is how does rhizomatic learning look in the foundational cornerstones of subjects like accounting, chemistry, mathematics, and physics (to mention but a few)?

I share the belief that all knowledge is socially constructed and flows from and perpetuates accepted epistemologies and ontologies embedded in the dominant discourses of the day. So I do not contest that. But how does one engage students in the basic building blocks in subjects like programming, accounting and chemistry. What level of understanding and capability is necessary before I can participate and contribute to rhizomatic learning – or do I miss something? For example, I can join a discussion or Wiki on microbiology or astrophysics – but even though I will be part of the network, the rhizomatic flows in the network will be totally wasted on me.

I would love to develop curricula that speak to and from the contexts of students, and appropriate to a specific professional context. I would like to scaffold and design a flow of information between these different contexts taking into consideration power-relations, context and threshold concepts. So while a lot of learning can and does take place outside carefully designed learning experiences, my question relates to the implications of rhizomatic learning when designing a mooc or a more structured (and assessed) curriculum.

As educator I embrace three things:

  • Not all the learning I plan for, takes place
  • Some of the learning I plan for, happens (often against all odds )
  • And then there is a lot of learning that happens that I do not (and cannot and should not) plan for

So while I embrace learning as essentially rhizomatic, I suspect that this does not exclude the fact that the different nodes and networks are embedded in sometimes frivolous and dynamic criteria and canons of ‘knowledge’, often with disastrous results. Or do I miss something?


About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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10 Responses to A tentative socio-critical exploration of rhizomatic education (#change11)

  1. Both bang on. (that article was written three years ago… and my thoughts on the subject are… uh… rhizomatic)

    1. power is in everything and inevitably part of the learning process. Point taken, needs to be addressed. I don’t think, however, that much that is there now contradicts that. It just hasn’t been addressed and is probably forshadowed in the term ‘negotiated’. Is that fair, or is there a deeper criticism i’m missing.

    2. I’ve got a few things that i’ve been adding over the years to address the foundations issue – both a deconstruction of it via blackbox and Actor-network theory and an acceptance of establishing of context.

    thanks for the excellent critique.

    • Dave – thanks for the response. I am not an expert 🙂 on reading (and/or understanding) Foucault, but I came upon a great quote in an article by Wood (2001:143) in which he quotes Foucault as having said the following regarding power:

      [Power] is not which makes the difference between those who exclusively possess and retain it, and those who do not have it and submit to it. Power must be analysed as something which circulates, or rather as something which only functions in the form of a chain. It is never localised here or there, never in anybody’s hands, never appropriated as a commodity or piece of wealth. [Rather,] power is employed and exercised through a net-like organisation. And not only do individuals circulate between its threads; they are always in the position of simultaneously undergoing and exercising this power. They are not only its inert or consenting targets; they are always also the elements of its articulation. In other words, individuals are the vehicles of power, not its point of application (as quoted by Wood 2001:143; emphasis added).

      So I think your use of the notion “negotiation” is most probably spot-on. What I like about the above quote is that power does not function unilaterally, but circulates and is articulated through negotiation (your term) in and between different nodes and networks.

      Most probably my first response was sort of a gut reaction to what I perceived as the “luxury of neutrality” which we cannot (and should not) afford or accommodate. Thinking of Wood (2001)(see reference below) a critical organic approach to rhizomatic learning may be interesting?

      Reference: Wood, M.D. 2001. Religious studies as critical organic practice. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 69(1):129-162.

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  4. Appreciate your comments here. Your first worry is endemic to any and all human enterprise and as such represents concerns that are part of most group dynamics. The issue isn’t power as much as it is how groups attend to power and at what level of transparency. I actually think rhizomatic structures given that they organize horizontally may in fact represent a method for attending to power.

    Your second concern is interesting. When I write about rhizomatic learning I tend to couple it alongside a discussion about explicit and tacit ways of knowing. This is important. We tend to think of explicit knowledge as the sum of knowledge and yet we know this is faulty whether we are learning about physics, literature, or accounting. In a rhizomatic environment where meaning is being composed among people, the development of tacit knowledge is potentially heightened. When tacit knowledge is codified, it becomes explicit. These days I tend to want to know more about how that process occurs and rarely see that happening (if ever) in more traditional classroom spaces where a hierarchical approach to explicit knowledge is maintained.

    There are reasons to shift method alongside learner need. This is surely possible within a rhizomatic space as it exist in the middle of things.

    • Dear Mary Ann – thanks for the feedback and engagement with my posting on #change11.

      I want to respond to three of the issues you raised:

      You wrote: “The issue isn’t power as much as it is how groups attend to power and at what level of transparency”. I believe transparency is part of the power play and the level of transparency depends on the stakes. The issue of transparency is also embedded in the broader discourses on ‘access to information’ and in my view, not necessarily ‘outside’ power or necessarily an antidote to power. In some cases yes – depending on the context and the stakes. In following John Gray (author of ‘Straw Dogs’) I believe that knowledge, the creation, use and distribution of knowledge can be used for the benefit of all or to perpetuate inequality. If I take this line of argument further, I would think that ‘transparency’ or for that matter rhizomatic learning are not unmixed goods.

      The second issue you raise is the notion that rhizomatic learning’s inherent horizontal character actually addresses the possible misuse of power (if I understood you correctly). I am not sure that horizontal learning is outside the embedded gender, socio-economic (etc) relations and power-plays. Interestingly, while there is a lot written about how social media played a significant role in the ‘Arab spring’ and the protests in the Tahir square in Egypt – the same social networks did not address the vast inequalities outside Tahir square! Vast injustices continue to exist and the much-hyped power of social networks has not made a dent in the gross gender, religious, cultural and socio-economic injustices and abuses in these countries.

      So while horizontal learning is different and most probably has the potential for shared knowledge construction – it is not outside serving the interests of dominant (or counter-hegemonic) interests – however temporarily and often in myopic ways.

      I agree fully with your comments on tacit and explicit knowledge and ways of knowing. As I am involved in an organisation that celebrates and perpetuates explicit and codified knowledges – I explicitly attempt to design learning journeys that would deconstruct and disrupt these sanctified canons.

      In conclusion – I suspect that the debate on rhizomatic learning also touches on the issues of the question Biesta raises in an earlier article – “How [and when] is education possible?”

  5. Pingback: A tentative socio-critical exploration of rhizomatic education (#change11) | The P2P Daily | Scoop.it

  6. This series of posts is furthering my thinking about the Rhizomatic Model. I was struggling with with the concrete natural behavior of rhizomes and could not see community in it at all. I saw the spread of a homogeneous network that did not allow the new into it. I don’t have much to add now, but thanks for the thoughtful discussion.

    • Tai – thanks for the response. Although I also love the use of metaphors and analogies – the use of them does often pose challenges to a cause – such as the one you point out. Yes, I agree. From what I understand of the phenomenon of rhizomes, the ‘community’ aspect does pose a challenge if not a conflict. Besides that – I suspect that the flow of information is not neutral and that networks (or communication rhizomes) inadvertently decide whether or not to allow the ‘new’ or the controversial. I have seen discussion forums ignore a person or an opinion for, amongst other reasons, that his or her opinion somehow does not resonate with those of a group. So no-one comments on the aspect, or tweet it or refer to it and so it ‘dies’. So in my opinion you are right – the hype of the diversity that is somehow celebrated in rhizomatic networks needs to be questioned.

      What is however amazing that when a ‘new’ or divergent view is expressed in a network and it somehow resonates with where the network is at that moment, then the comment can go viral and be absorped into the main DNA of the network. But as I indicated in the post, the criteria communities (and networks) use to include or exclude (or forward/retweet…) are based within existing and historical power relations. Me thinks.

  7. I’m extremely impressed with your writing skills and also with the layout on your blog. Is this a paid theme or did you modify it yourself? Anyway keep up the nice quality writing, it is rare to see a nice blog like this one today..

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